Radiation exposure has been high in the public consciousness of late, with abundant articles on airport body scanners, the tsunami-triggered meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the possible overuse of cardiac CT scans.
The latest salvo comes from a recent research letter reporting that one-third of patients who received a CT scan said they didn’t think radiation was used in the diagnostic procedure.
About one-third of U.S. adults don’t know CT scans use radiation. (Photo by Markie Ramirez)
Obviously, it is.
William Boswell Jr., M.D., chair of City of Hope’s Department of Diagnostic Radiology, understands the reasons behind that misconception. He says that radiologists typically offer to answer questions that patients have about any diagnostic procedure they undergo, whether it be magnetic resonance imaging, commonly called MRI, or computed tomography (CT) scans. But in his experience, most patients ask only about the results of their scans.
“Cancer patients are among the most educated about their disease that I’ve encountered, but no patient will understand everything about their treatment,” he says. “In fact, no physician can be as aware of the latest findings or advances in diagnostic imaging as a radiologist.”
Boswell worries that a factoid about what patients don’t know may be misused by the media to feed overinflated fears of radiation.
“In my opinion, it’s bad medicine to put a sense of fear into a patient’s head when the use of diagnostic CT scans are appropriate to the treatment,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves: What is the real risk? Diagnostic scans are a very necessary part of cancer treatment to assess how the patient is responding.”
CT scans are a series of X-rays of a portion of the body that are stitched together to form a 3-D internal image of the area. Radiologists balance the need for detailed resolution against the necessity of minimizing patients' radiation exposure.
Boswell says radiologists are integral members of a patient care team, “there to help physicians make the best judgment call about treatment.” Radiologists make suggestions about what type of diagnostic procedure the physician may need for patient's care, and what type of procedure a patient may be able to handle depending on his or her physical and mental state.
“There is no right or wrong answer to the question about just how much information patients need for every aspect of their cancer care,” Boswell says. “When you provide the most appropriate information, patients understand the necessity and value of diagnostic imaging.”